In Our View: Easing Access to College

As Washington works on issue, research shows value of continuing education

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With the Great Recession helping to create a spike in tuition rates and a decline in real income, many questions — and doubts — have been raised in recent years about the value of a college education. New data from Pew Research, however, indicate that college has an even larger impact on earning power than it did for previous generations.

According to the survey, college graduates ages 25-32 — the so-called millennial generation — earned about $17,500 more in 2012, on average, than their peers who had only a high school diploma. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that gap is larger than it was at the same age for the baby boomers born in the years following World War II, and for the Generation Xers born between 1965 and 1980.

In other words, a college degree still typically has a large impact on earning potential. That’s not to say that a person must graduate from college in order to have a successful career — both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, and there are numerous examples of people who have done well in their field without the benefit of college — but graduating from college considerably improves one’s chances of achieving financial security.

Those chances have been enhanced in recent years as real wages have dropped for blue-collar workers. During the Great Recession, wages for college graduates have remained largely stagnant — helping to create debate about the value of college — but globalization and the erosion of unions have hampered wages even more severely for non-college graduates.

As the Pew report notes: “Young college graduates are having more difficulty landing work than earlier cohorts. They are more likely to be unemployed and have to search longer for a job than earlier generations of young adults.” But, the report says, “The picture is consistently bleaker for less-educated workers.”

Into that reality steps the Washington Student Achievement Council. Launched in 2012 after being created by the Legislature, WSAC receives half of its $12 million operating budget from the state’s general fund and is tasked with making higher education more conceivable, believable and achievable for Washington students. The council has developed a road map for the state to drive toward two achievement goals by 2023: All adults in Washington having a high school diploma or equivalent; and 70 percent of adults having a postsecondary credential such as a degree, certificate or apprenticeship.

“All means all to us; it doesn’t mean some,” WSAC executive director Dr. Gene Sharratt said. “Our own students are not getting our jobs; we’re one of the leaders in the nation for importing workers. We have to have more students in the system to supply our workforce.”

One of the primary barriers to that is a perception among students and parents that college is not academically or financially attainable. To help combat that perception, WSAC recently launched a website — ReadySetGrad.com — to provide information on financial aid and state-supported colleges in Washington. “By giving students a dream and support and something at the end of the line, this is working very well for us,” Sharratt said.

A lot of work remains to be done, in Washington and other states. But another revelation from the Pew report suggests that it likely will be worth it: Nine out of 10 millennials with at least a bachelor’s degree said that college had already paid off or would in the future.